Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Archive for July, 2015

Obama’s visit tells of a society in need of emancipation

Liberating minds _ Angela Davis
Every month, the watchman of the building I live in asks me to lend him 1,000 or 2,000 Kshs, with the promise to pay me back at the end of the month. He rarely pays me back on time, because things always come up. Although he watches over property worth several hundred million Kshs, his earnings are barely enough to see him through the month.

This man walks three hours every morning to get to work and back home every evening. He works 12 hours a day, without a lunch break, and yet he cannot afford to pay 40 Kshs. for his daily transport. This is despite the fact that he supplements his income by washing the cars of the residents of the building, alongside other manual work that is given to him.

Even with all these efforts, he still owes me 1,000 Kshs. from last year, and he has explained to me that he is paying a loan, which makes it even more difficult to make ends meet. He is highly in debt, just to survive. On top of that, he recently got a wife, so things are probably worse, with an extra mouth to feed.

Now that he has a wife, there is a possibility that he will be getting children in the future. I don’t need to investigate to confirm that the chances of his children having the same kind of education, healthcare and nutrition as the children occupying the houses he mans are close to, if not zero. Miracles may happen, but I foresee a high probability that his children will be in the same situation he is in 20 years down the line.

Sometimes I overhear the conversations between the watchmen and the domestic workers, and I get a sense that they are well aware of the structural inequalities in this country. Talking and joking are their ways of dealing with the harsh realities of life. They talk about the challenges of being on the tail end of the inequality divide. They joke about how they can only afford certain luxuries in their dreams.

The luxuries they joke about are nothing luxurious by middle class standards – sometimes it is just the need for a decent lunch, the dream to take their children to university, or to take public transport to work and back home. For the domestic workers, they wish they could see their children daily, spend more time with them, and like their employers, receive their children when they come back from school.

These kind of inequalities glare at us every day in the places that we live, our places of work and just about every public and private space. Any Kenyan will tell you that the fruits of independence are only enjoyed by a few; that where you are born, and who you are born to determines your chances in life and the kind of opportunities that life will present you with.

In their conversations, the watchmen and domestic workers correctly correlate their social and economic challenges to corruption, nepotism, cronyism and tribalism. They know that without these social ills, their lives would be somewhat, if not significantly different.

Yet when Obama talked about inequalities, tribalism and corruption in Kenya, we spent the entire day quoting different sections of his speech through tweets, re-tweets, and Facebook posts that were liked, commented on and shared widely. We marvelled at Obama’s genius, his wisdom, and spoke at length about how inspired we were, never mind that any ordinary Kenya would have told you the exact same thing. We celebrated these obvious statements, as if they were the words of the prophet, foretelling a future that we don’t know of.

I have found myself trying to make sense of the response of Kenyans to Obama’s visit, and more specifically, his speech. I have found myself wondering whether the over-celebration of these obvious statements could be symptoms of a repressed society. Were we celebrating because Obama said what many of us could not say for fear of being branded traitors or unpatriotic?

Could the ‘Obama-mania’ that we witnessed, and the over-enthusiastic cheering of obvious statements be signs of a nation clinging to the hope of much needed salvation? Could these be signs of a society that is in self-doubt? Could the hope we vested in Obama be an indication of low confidence to emancipate ourselves from the problems that we often articulate so well, even across socio-economic divide?

As Africans, we have struggled to emancipate ourselves from the indignity of domination by foreign and colonial rule. Even after attaining independence, Africans have vehemently objected to be shaped by dominant narratives of the West, about Africa. This is a journey that we continue to pursue spiritedly.

However, we cannot succeed in the journey to emancipation if we continue to cling to the West for affirmation and legitimization. When we fail to believe ourselves until a foreigner ‘diagnoses’ our problem and speaks on our behalf. We must rise above the need for affirmation by the foreign, and believe that we are holders of knowledge about ourselves. We must believe that the power to chart a new kind of Africa lies with us, and not the West.

Bob Marley - Emancipation


African feminists found

Guest post by Varyanne Sika 

When I found Cera’s blog I was desperately searching for less known and less established feminist writers (at the time) who were writing about feminism in accessible ways in Kenya. I found Cera’s blog on twitter through a simple search using a combination of two key words Kenyan + feminist. It was a search for feminists who stood firm in their feminism and at the time, to me, nothing was more firm than a bio or name that did not hide behind the kind of meandering and clumsy definitions of feminism I had been finding. Upon finding the blog I quickly read her latest post, at the time it was “I Refuse to Shrink” which was a timely post published on International Women’s Day. In the post, Cera said “we need to raise daughters to refuse to shrink” and I thought, “we must also learn to un-shrink ourselves because shrunken women (who want children) cannot raise daughters to refuse to shrink”. After frantically commenting on the post and complaining about being unable to contact her, I proceeded to share the post with the facebook feminist friends I had at the time (I keep saying ‘at the time’ because things have changed rather drastically, and pleasantly in the past few months). I knew Cera and I were going to be talking to and with each other for a long time.

I was looking for more and other feminist content which was relevant to Kenya and to other countries on the continent because I grew weary of reading the usual dominant feminist platforms which were run outside Africa. Having Pambazuka and the African Gender Institute permanently open in one of my tabs and having downloaded all the Feminist Africa Journal issues (which are free for download), wasn’t enough. I was hungry for more feminist content from the continent because I needed to be able to name at least ten online feminist platforms without thinking too hard.

Four years ago I stumbled upon MsAfropolitan which is run by Minna Salami (who gave this TED Talk) and on her website I found a treasure! A list of African feminist blogs and African feminist resources! I went through the list, subscribed to the running blogs to which I could subscribe and shared the list with the feminists I knew. Two years after the treasure that was the list of resources, I wrote an essay ‘Fashion for Feminists’ on how dress and fashion shapes women’s identities for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa’s publication Buwa! which publishes thematic essays on varying issues on feminism in Africa. All of their publications are also free for download. Buwa! inspired in me a pressing need to contribute to and to increase feminist voices online.

Image from Open Society

Image from Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa.

A year ago I asked Nyaboe who also runs a music blog called Songs we Like to join me in putting together an African feminist anthology. I asked her this because I had spotted Simone De Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ in her library and that was all I needed really. However, Nyaboe and I could not get the anthology started because of usual distractions and a crippling fear on my part, that we wouldn’t be able to string together coherent, let alone compelling paragraphs to add anything worth anyone’s time to the African feminist conversation. Towards the end of last year I read from ‘Voice, Power and Soul’ edited by Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi and Jessica Horn, two paragraphs that reminded me of the critical need for feminist voices on the continent.

Our current struggles as African Feminists are inextricably linked to our past as a continent – diverse pre-colonial contexts, slavery, colonization, liberation struggles, neo-colonialism, globalization, etc. Modern African States were built off the backs of African Feminists who fought alongside men for the liberation of the continent. As we craft new African States in this new millennium, we also craft new identities for African women, identities as full citizens, free from patriarchal oppression, with rights of access, ownership and control over resources and our own bodies. We also recognize that our pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial histories require special measures to be taken in favour of particular African women in different contexts. We acknowledge the historical and significant gains that have been made by the African Women’s Movement over the past forty years, and we make bold to lay claim to these gains as African Feminists – they happened because African Feminists led the way, from the grassroots level and up; they strategised, organized, networked, went on strike and marched in protest, and did the research, analysis, lobbying, institution building and all that it took for States, employers and institutions to acknowledge women’s personhood.”

The Wide Margin was thus born, and Cera did not know it at the time but she was going to write about the [Feminist] Liberation not being Un-African.

Image from wide marging

Image from The Wide Margin website, illustration by Naddya Oluoch.

The Wide Margin was started because, “Feminism has often been distorted or co­opted by media, by religion, by capitalism, and by patriarchy. Many Africans avoid associating themselves with feminism. The claim that feminist ideals and projects “are not our culture” is often parroted as a stodgy excuse to disengage with feminism. But, as shown in Silence​ is a Woman by Wambui Mwangi, ‘Transversal​  Politics’ by Nira Yuval­ Davis, We​ Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, amongst others, the concept of “culture” is fraught, and, while often in an antagonistic patriarchal relationship with women’s lives, culture also provides an archive and site of articulation for women’s trans­generational quests for sovereignty, autonomy, freedom, and pleasure…We are here to occupy space, to increase feminist voices from the continent and to tell young feminists in Africa, ‘you are not alone.’ ” – Editorial, Feminist While African, The Wide Margin.

After (and during the process of) publishing the inaugural issue of The Wide Margin, I discovered even more feminist content in Africa including Mon Pi Mon in Uganda, Third Culture Feminism in Zimbabwe and HOLA Africa, a Pan-Africanist queer womanist collective. Through deliberately occupying space online I learned that I did not in fact find already existing African feminists, we found each other.

The word for woman in my language is ‘mutumia’. Loosely translated this means the voiceless or the silent one…The fact that woman and silence are synonyms is reflective of the [imposed] voicelessness of women.” – Cera Njagi in ‘Mutumia

This is a reminder to those who already know about all the women speaking to share the words of other feminists as often as they can and as widely as possible. This is also an announcement to those who are not aware of feminist voices from Africa that African Feminists are being found with more regularity and consistency, tell a friend and tell them to tell other friends.

Bio:Varyanne is the editor in chief of The Wide Margin. She practices black feminist breathing while championing inclusive, intersectional, rigorous and unapologetic feminism.

What if my child was gay, lesbian, intersex or transgender?

Following the US Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriages, coupled by the fact that Obama will soon visit Kenya, there are fears and concerns among Kenyans that the US may want the rest of the world to follow its example. The Kenyan deputy president, William Ruto has therefore issued a stern warning to President Obama not to talk about gay rights during his trip to Kenya. He has further declared that there is no place for gay people in Kenya. This homophobic sentiments have been lauded by many Kenyans, who have taken upon themselves to spew homophobic messages largely through social media, and in many social conversations.

These events have seen me engage in conversations about gay rights over the last few weeks, mostly with people that are completely opposed to the idea of people with non-conforming sexualities having the same rights as any human being. On several occasions, I have found myself being asked what I would do, or how I would respond if my child turned out to be gay.

I don’t know what people expect as the answer to that question, or even the purpose of asking the question. I suppose those who ask the question imagine that the thought of my own flesh and blood turning out gay, will hit me back to my senses, because to them, this would be a parent’s worst nightmare.

My first question to the people that ask this question is whether the parents of children known to be heterosexual (straight) go about life thinking about their children’s sexuality. If that is not the case, then why would any parent go about life thinking about their child’s non-conforming sexuality? I don’t understand why people imagine that the sexual identity or gender of a child with a non-conforming sexuality or gender identity should be the primary focus of their being.

No one is any one single thing, and to imagine that I would reduce my child to a sexual or gender identity is strange thinking. Human beings are often many things in one, and sexual identity is one thing, but not everything about a person.

If my child was gay, lesbian, heterosexual, asexual, intersex, transgender, queer, it wouldn’t matter. They would be my child, biologically. I would give them the best life I could. Bring them up to be the best human beings they could be. I would want them to dream and realize their dreams. I would want them to live their lives true to themselves, and without fear that their sexuality would pose a hindrance to them realizing their dreams. I would raise them to know that they are more than their sexuality; that they are humans with lives to live.

I am human

As a person who is socially and politically active, I would want my children to see life beyond themselves. I would want them to speak out and act against corruption, rigged elections, restriction of civic and media freedoms, police brutality and extra-judicial killings, the inadequacy and neglect of public services, among other human rights violations, or whatever other social vices will exist in their society during their time. I would not want my children to be apathetic, only gaining voice on matters concerning morality and sexuality.

My greatest fear would be to raise children that consume and spew hatred towards people that do not look, think or behave like them. I would be greatly concerned if my children would rather hate tax-paying, law-abiding citizens, whose sexualities they may not understand, while there are so many injustices to confront and challenge in society.

I would be concerned if my children would choose to make an issue of people with non-conforming sexualities and gender identities, rather than demand better from politicians living lavishly off their taxes, yet continue to steal from them in the broad day light, abusing, raping and kill them. I would be disturbed if my children got distracted from the real issues.

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